Theatrical Revival Begins

For British theatregoers, the real Irish theatrical revival came in the 1960s. It took shape around two first-rate plays by emerging writers: Tom Murphy's Whistle in the Dark in 1961 and Brian Friel's Philadelphia, Here I Come! in 1964.

Emigration was the starting-point for both of them. Friel (1929-) was born into the Northern Irish Catholic community in Omagh, County Tyrone and brought up in Derry. In his teens he studied for the priesthood: a bleak experiment. He was a schoolteacher until his early thirties and he found his confidence as a playwright during a residency in Minneapolis, at the theatre run by the great Irish director Tyrone Guthrie. For six months, he skulked about at the back of the stalls, wondering what he was meant to do, let alone what right he had to be there. One day a doorman tried to stop him coming in. One of the actors intervened. "He's OK," he said. "He's an observer." "That fortuitous christening," as Friel described it later, "gave me not only an identity but a dignity."

"Observer" was the happiest word the actor could have chosen. It conveys Friel's reticence, his coolness and the X-ray quality of his writing: there's no fact so solid but it will, if studied hard, dissolve to reveal a tissue of possible fact beneath.

Philadelphia, Here I Come! is set on the eve of young Gar O'Connell's departure for the United States. (Two actors play him: Friel's plays are rich in mirror-images and doubles.) His friends are louts, his father is brusque. His girlfriend is delightful, but Gar has missed his chance. No wonder he longs for "a vast restless place that doesn't give a damn about the past". But America now seems weird and uninviting. Why is he going? He doesn't know.

Friel on a Roll

Freedom of the City derived from the 1972 Bloody Sunday shootings, but its theme is myth: the weaving of convenient fantasies around an inconvenient truth. Three Catholic demonstrators take refuge in the nearest place to hand which, to their great surprise, turns out to be the Mayor's parlour in the Guildhall, Derry. One is a housewife, one a respectable, trusting fellow, one an intelligent bigmouth. Emerging with their hands on their heads, they're shot dead by the army. Their transfiguration now ensues: the army labels them as terrorists, a balladeer sings of their martyrdom in the tradition of Pearse and Connolly, a priest laments their death but blames the influence of godless Communism.

These ambiguities evaded the London critics: "It suffers fatally from this overzealous determination to discredit the means and the motives of the English in the present Ulster crisis," said the Evening Standard, while the Daily Mail disclosed the "the play has angered senior army officers in Ulser".

Nevertheless, Friel was on a roll: Faith Healer (1979), one of his finest plays, followed: a sombre, coded meditation on the life of an Irish writer. The healer has - at times - a gift he cannot explain. Or does he? What if it's all a fraud? What's certain is that, when Frank went home to Ireland, he found himself in a rural backwater being challenged to cure a hopeless case. He failed and was lynched.

The play that really established Friel in English eyes as a master playwright was Dancing at Lughnasa. It was a huge international crowd-pleaser, thanks to the title scene: who could resist the sight of five delightful women breaking into a joyous Bacchanalia? But Lughnasa couldn't have conquered the world in the way it did without Friel's masterly control over its opposing themes: past/present, discipline/freedom, language/dance. This is what helps a play to "travel": to surmount cultural differences, translations, bad translations, bad productions.

Bloody Sunday & Beyond

From Bloody Sunday onwards, playwrights from the North were drawn into the Troubles. David Rudkin had knocked the London theatre sideways with Afore Night Come for the RSC in 1961; Stewart Parker (1941-1988) produced a pair of playful musings on sectarian violence in Spokesong and Catchpenny Twist, and a brilliant triptych, full of parody and pastiche in the Denis johnston mould (Northern Star, Heavenly Bodies and Pentecost; Bill Morrison's (1940-) Flying Blind turned the horror into farce; and both Graham Reid (1945-1) in Remembrance and Martin Lynch (1950-) in The Interrogation of Amrose Fogarry delved into the gritty roots of Loyalist violence, a theme taken up more recently by Gary Mitchell (1965) in Trust. In Ron Hutchinson's Rat in the Skull, violence across the divide as a subversive pleasure, indulged in under the nose of the common enemy.

Frank McGuinness (1953-) broke the surface in 1982 with a study of working women: The Factory Girls. Behold the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme showed off both the scale of his imagination and the subtlety of his sexual politics. Carthaginians took drama of the Troubles to a new and different level: sexual, mythic and reflective.

The New Schism

Young Irish playwrights have very different views of narrative: it's a schism between story-driven drama and plays of atmosphere. Sebastian Barry (1955-) falls into the second category. His plays are "states", not sweeps of action: they dwell on memory and their style is limpid. But his best-known plays deliver crisp, no-nonsense analysis of some tectonic slippage in Irish history. The Steward of Christendom delves into Barry's own family background to show us the Catholic Dublin copper - now indigent, old and mad - who, on a memorable day in 1922, turned over Dublin Castle to the insurgent general, Michael Collins. Our Lady of Sligo is a mirror-image of The Steward: Mai, a dying alcoholic, stands for a Catholic bourgeoisie left floundering by the advent of nationhood.

Barry's success in Ireland, Britain and the United States is a quiet and mostly unremarked revolution: before The Steward, non-narrative theatre had been strictly a cult form. Martin McDonagh (1970-) is in every way Barry's opposite. The Beauty Queen of Leenane is story-based entirely: this is a tragi-comedy of peasant life, part of not one but two Aran Island trilogies. The coincidence with Synge's old patch had English reviewers scrabbling for comparisons with The Playboy of the Western World, but it was hard to make them stick and when McDonagh, in his many media appearances, turned out to be a chic young guy, wearing the nicest Armani suit you've ever seen and sporting a marked South London accent, bemusement turned to fury.

"If this is an Irish playwright, I'm a banana," cried the chorus. McDonagh is Irish/British, born in London: this is what emigration is all about. If he's the most street-wise of young Irish writers, he's also the one who draws the most from Irish theatrical history.

Conor McPherson (1971-) began with stories unadorned: in This Lime Tree Bower the characters unfold their tales as raconteurs might do in a pub. But in The Weir, stories are the bricks and mortar of the play: it ends in memorable epiphany. No politics here: McPherson will not write about the "struggle", nor the era of stagnation, nor the agonies of the North.

In Ireland's past, the notion of a national drama was a problem, one to be solved by smoke and mirrors and much invention. Now that battle is won, the Irish playwright can be a playwright. The single factor about the new generation is the lightness with which it bears the burdens of the past. Which makes it no less Irish. The idea of "nation" is a self-replenishing vessel: the more is spent, the more wells up from below.

The above is an edited extract from the book Changing Stages: A view of British Theatre in the Twentieth Century, now released in paperback (priced £16.99) by Bloomsbury. To order a copy, please visit the Bloomsbury website. You can also try to win one of five copies now in's Prizes & Offers section. Competition ends 17 January 2002.

Major productions of Irish drama currently on and coming up in London include:

  • Alone It Stands by John Breen, at the Duchess
  • Faith Healer by Brian Friel, at the Almeida at King's Cross
  • Hinterland by Sebastian Barry, at the NT Cottesloe
  • Stones in His Pockets by Marie Jones, at the Duke of York's
  • The Lieutenant of Inishmore by Martin McDonagh, at the Barbican Pit
  • The Cavalcaders by Billy Roche, at the Tricycle